Quentin Tarantino's version of history as farce.
Jan 28, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 19 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
Django and Schultz become partners and devise a complex scheme to liberate Django’s slave wife from a notorious Mississippi plantation. It is the home of an infernal would-be charmer named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose primary pleasure is watching slaves try to beat each other to death. The narrative trick up Tarantino’s sleeve in the last third of the movie (comparable to the one in Inglourious Basterds), involves Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a 76-year-old slave at the Candie plantation. He proves to be a very formidable and dangerous player indeed.
The mark of how audaciously (or nihilistically) Tarantino turns history to his own pulpish ends is this: Ultimately, both Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are actually comedies. Stanley Kubrick once said of the most revered film of our time: “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred who don’t.” That brilliant bit of criticism is really made flesh by Tarantino’s wildly irresponsible but also irresistible romp, Inglourious Basterds, which truly is the Holocaust with a happy ending.
Django Unchained is, at times, out-and-out farce. Don Johnson appears as a plantation owner made up to look exactly like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame, who attempts to lead an early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Their raid is foiled when none of them can see through the holes in their hoods, and they fall to squabbling. Later, an escape right out of a Road Runner cartoon is made through the fortuitous use of some dynamite.
The relationship between Schultz and Django is out of an old-fashioned buddy movie. Indeed, Django Unchained is an unacknowledged remake of a little-remembered 1971 con-artist movie called Skin Game, with James Garner and Louis Gossett Jr. In Skin Game, set in the 1850s, Garner and Gossett are friends—Gossett was born a free man in New Jersey—who trick plantation owners by having Garner sell Gossett to them and then securing his escape.
Skin Game is gentle and surprising, defiantly odd; it was probably the inspiration for another peculiar and memorable white/black con-artist buddy comedy 20 years later called Diggstown, which also stars Louis Gossett Jr. By contrast, there’s nothing gentle about Django Unchained, in which a gunshot is inevitably followed by a flying piece of flesh or innards. Tarantino is still the giggly teenager who really, really wants to gross you out, and if you gross out easily, you must avoid this thing at all costs. But if you don’t, and if you don’t mind your history revised and rewritten and reconceived without principle—my, oh my, is this Django Unchained a wild and entertaining piece of work.
Now, if Tarantino is really daring, he’ll make his next movie about the suffragettes.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s movie critic.